Six books that have shaped my view on the world

My literary pursuit to create a place on our little rock spaceship

Dr Seuss once wrote, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go”. I like to read a lot, and a lot of the books I read are fun, interesting and more often than not vaguely informative, but every now and then a book pops up that ends up having a genuinely life changing impact…

The six books below have taken me places; their contents have helped me make decisions, redirected my interests or simply made me see every day things in a completely different light.

Career and purpose

Exponential Organisations

By Salim Ismail

Recommended by Kulraj Smagh

“The biggest risk is not taking any risk.”

I was six months into my early corporate career when I was forced to make a pretty big decision. Up to that point I’d been working with a bunch of renegade technologists instead of following the well trodden consulting path of Major Programme Transformation. Then one day, with suited angels on one shoulder and turtle-necked devils on the other, I had to decide whether to stop the innovation and return to the tried and tested route to success, or risk my career by continuing to work on left-field problems with unproven solutions.

I took a week out to make my decision with a clear head, and while I was away gave ExO a read. It was a complete eye opener, like someone had suddenly revealed the secrets of company growth. “Any company designed for success in the 20th century is doomed to failure in the 21st”, and there I was working in one of the 20th century’s success stories which, up to that point, was resistant to the work I’d been doing. Stories of lean startups, disruptions and a host of other buzzwords sunk in and helped me make up my mind: tech is the way. So I cracked on with those renegades for another two years. Because of that decision, this book has done more for my career than any other so far.

Life 3.0

By Max Tegmark

Recommended by Alex Duckett

“It’s not our universe giving meaning to conscious beings, but conscious beings giving meaning to our universe.”

Like many mid-to-late 20 somethings I’ve done my fair share of existential reflection. What is the meaning of all this; what is the point? Turns out that after centuries of philosophical thinking the answer is there isn’t one! Or at least not one that anyone has uncovered just yet. Enter Max Tegmark and the profound realisation that intelligence and consciousness is what gives meaning to the universe and not the other way round. It’s pretty liberating knowing that all meaning to things come from you, and it’s up to you how you create and enjoy that purpose.

The flip side of that is that without intelligence this meaning rapidly dissipates, and right now our personal intelligence expires after 80 odd years. That’s where Max Tegmark’s case for AI being the continuation of intelligence, consciousness and meaning comes from, and ignited a new interest in AI philosophy far beyond the technical interest I had before I started reading this book. Life 3.0 has set me on a journey to try and contribute in some way towards the continuation of intelligence and with it, meaning. Deep I know.

Awareness

Enlightenment Now

By Steven Pinker

Recommended by Lex Fridman

“There can be no question of which was the greatest era for culture; the answer has to be today, until it is superseded by tomorrow.”

The modern day news cycle paints a pretty downbeat picture of the world. Steven Pinker puts it down to the frequency of news availability (which nowadays is real time) and news agencies or armchair journalists on Twitter looking to grab your limited attention with the most shocking of stories from wildfires to pandemics to celebrities putting on weight.

But imagine a glacial news frequency that had you reading a newspaper covering the events of the last 5o years and you’d likely be reading about all of the amazing progress that humanity has made. Data shows that the world is wealthier, safer, less disease-ridden, more equal, less racist and sexist, more democratic, healthier and better educated than at any point in human history. Enlightenment Now summarises an incredibly positive but justified view on humanity’s progress and creates cause for realistic optimism as we move through the 21st century and face off against climate change, nuclear armageddon and political populism to name but a few. A snapshot of today might look bleak, but history has proven that things are getting better and with a bit of effort we can keep the world aligned to that trend.

The Infinite Game

By Simon Sinek

Recommended by Lex Fridman

“To ask, “What’s best for me” is finite thinking. To ask, “What’s best for us” is infinite thinking.”

Those that know me would say I’m a pretty competitive person. I like to strive to win, or at least do the best that I can. What The Infinite Game taught me is that trying to win an infinite game is by definition a futile endeavour; there is no end so winning is impossible. Instead the best way to operate in the infinite game is to approach it with an infinite mindset; that is to contribute towards a just cause and create environments for other people to succeed in, as opposed to working towards unsustainable targets and trying to beat others and come out on top.

The Infinite Game values trust and relationships over performance and productivity, and points out that if you nail the first two then the next two naturally follow anyway. It’s an essential read to put your own priorities in perspective and help you to make decisions that set you and everyone around you up for the best possible long term outcome.

Historical context

Guns, Germs and Steel

By Jared Diamond

Recommended by Stuart Barrass

“The whole modern world has been shaped by lopsided outcomes.”

Guns, Germs and Steel is the OG Sapiens and told human history before it was cool to read about it. For anyone who questions why history went the way that it did this is essential reading. Who knew that the alignment of continents essentially decided that it would be the Europeans who colonised the Americas and not the other way round?

In a connected and globalised world its hard to imagine anything different, let alone how things came to be as they are, but Jared Diamond’s book takes a stark scientific look at the last 70,000 years and explains exactly how tiny differences in environments led to the flourishing of certain technologies and cultures that paved the way to the modern world.

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

By Niall Ferguson

“Today 350 million people speak English as their first language and around 450 million have it as a second language. That is roughly one in every seven people on the planet.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not some backward looking Imperialist who harks to the days of Empire with a Union Flag hanging in my room next to a portrait of Horatio Nelson, but what you can’t deny is the legacy of the British Empire on almost all significant events in recent history. The Black Lives Matter movement, conflict in Israel, ISIS, Brexit, 9/11, tensions in Kashmir and Chinese oppression in Hong Kong (to name but a few) all stem from former British colonial rule, and understanding how and why Empire played out is a keystone to understanding global politics, society and culture today.

I write this on a sunny afternoon in Sydney having ordered a coffee in spoken English from a cafe that sits in a converted post office which highlights my own intimate ties to Britain’s colonial past. Although tainted in many aspects it cannot be ignored. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a grip on the source of a lot of the world’s problems but also the undeniably positive spread of democracy and technology around the world.

Product manager. Self-titled free thinker. Rat in the race looking for a gap in the fence.

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